Singing for those I know – talking Ocean Colour Scene acoustic side-shows with Simon Fowler

Last time I chatted to Simon Fowler, four years ago, he was walking Cooper, his cockapoo, by the river near his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, not long before heading up to my adopted neck of the woods with Ocean Colour Scene to play Lancaster’s Highest Point Festival.

“Oh right. He was a little puppy then.”

And he’ll be back soon (Simon, that is), this time with bandmate Oscar Harrison for a two-man take on the band’s back-catalogue, the pair currently rehearsing for 25-date acoustic UK tour, An Evening with Simon and Oscar of Ocean Colour Scene, starting on April 29th at Fat Sam’s in Dundee and running through to June 2nd at The Globe in Cardiff.

For those shows, Simon (aka Foxy) sings and play acoustic guitar, and Ocean Colour Scene drummer Oscar also sings and plays piano, bass and percussion, the duo on the back of a sell-out full band UK tour in 2021, but this time playing more intimate seated venues, hopefully including acoustic performances of hits and anthems such as ‘The Riverboat Song’, ‘The Circle’, ‘You’ve Got It Bad’, ‘Better Day’, ‘Travellers Tune’, ‘Hundred Mile High City’, ‘It’s a Beautiful Thing’, ‘Profit in Peace’, ‘So Low’, and ‘The Day We Caught The Train’. So many great songs that formed an integral part of my soundtrack to that second half of the ‘90s … and beyond.

And it turns out they were in Lancashire last week too, playing Blackburn Museum & Art Gallery.

“We did a gig in memory of a great friend of ours who died last year, on the anniversary of his death. His name was Craig Dunstan. Him and his wife Tracy, they’d come and say {adopts a broad Lancashire accent}, ‘You know, this is the 186th time we’ve seen you!’.  They were absolute super-fans, and went in the front car with Chris and Steve Cradock when Steve’s mother died. They were very, very close to us. So Oscar and I did a concert in memory and to raise money for a brain tumour charity, in an incredible venue in Blackburn, like a little theatre above a fantastic little museum.”

I see Paul Weller and his band (including Steve Cradock) were also in Blackburn last week, on his latest tour, playing King George’s Hall. As for Craig and Tracy, that goes to show the enduring love out there for the Scenies (as the fans would have it), a quarter of a century or so after that period in which they seemed to be everywhere, from Chris Evans’ TFI Friday TV show to major Oasis supports, the Weller affiliation, and that whole surge that came with the Britpop movement. But how does Simon look back on those mid-‘90s glory days now?

“Oh, with great fondness. And quite a bit of pride, to be quite honest. It was as good as you can imagine, really.”

I touched on those years with Louise Wener, from Sleeper, recently, someone else party to that inner circle of bands tucked in behind heavyweights Blur and Oasis, moving in similar circles.

“Yeah … although I didn’t know them. They were kind of the Camden crowd … they were in Blur’s gang, and we were in Paul’s gang!”

Does it all seem a dreamy blur now – no pun intended – looking back on that? Did you get a chance to enjoy it at the time?

“Oh God, yeah … far too much! Haha! I’m glad we did that. We did the whole rock’n’roll show, we really did. We were just about young enough. Well, I was – me and Oscar are four years older than Steve (Cradock) and Damon (Minchella), and I was in my early 30s. But the idea of living that lifestyle now fills me with utter horror! Haha! I mean, the idea of going to a nightclub fills me with dread!”

It all started back in their native Solihull. Who was it that had past involvement with the band Echo Base?

“That was Oscar. They made an album at UB40’s studio, whilst it was being built. And they toured with them on the Geffery Morgan tour, when Oscar would have been about 17.”

What were you doing at the time? Were you aware of them, and did you know Oscar?

“No, I got to know Oscar through the manager we had before Chris Cradock. Oscar joined our band, The Fanatics, which Damon was also in. Then Steve joined us, and we became Ocean Colour Scene. That was in October 1989.”

Simon describes his forthcoming dates with Oscar as ‘a real tonic – a great chance to look the audience in the eye and interact with them on a more personal basis than ever before’, the latest chapter in a winning career.

The afore-mentioned Chris Evans’ support helped, the Scenies doing the pilot show for TFI Friday, its presenter also making ‘The Riverboat Song’ his BBC Radio 1 breakfast show record of the week for two weeks in a row, Top of the Pops performances and much more also regularly popping up.

There were top-10 albums with breakthrough second album Moseley Shoals (1996, No.2) and follow-ups Marchin’ Already (1997, No.1), One from the Modern (1999, No.4) and Mechanical Wonder (2001, No.7), the band also amassing 17 top-40 singles, including a staggering run of nine successive top-20 hits, six of those making the top-10, with a mantelpiece full of awards also coming their way.

They were clearly no overnight success though, having spent half a dozen initial years fine-tuning their sound. And before calling Simon I went back to their self-titled debut album, now 30 years old, and …

“The very first album? Crikey, yeah!”

Indeed, and I feel on a fresh listen that’s stood the test of time, even if it’s not one that gets talked about so much. As it was, they soon parted from the Fontana label and started writing their own material in a Birmingham studio, a period they now see as one where they ‘learnt how to make records rather than just playing two guitars, drum and bass on stage’. Was that earlier period (their first three singles initially came out on the Phffft label, before Fontana snuck in) your apprenticeship of sorts?

“Yes, I guess it was. Also, that’s when we got to know Paul, and that sort of made us. Yeah, that was part of our apprenticeship. And we were with Jimmy Miller, the (Rolling) Stones producer … which actually didn’t really work out because we had too much fun with Jimmy, and he was sacked. Haha!”

There was also a link with Alison Moyet in those days, the former Yazoo star adding guest vocals to ‘Giving It All Away’, one of the singles from the debut LP.  

“Steve went out with Alison’s manager, a lady called Debbie Rawlings. And Alison became part of the gang. She came to my 25th birthday party at the dump where we lived in Birmingham, and proceeded to reverse a Range Rover into the wall and knock it down! Haha!”

A sort of ‘Alf was here’ calling card?

“And we were renting! She was a great laugh, Alison … goodness me!”

You were clearly never just a 15-minute fad, and listening back to that first album I hear those folk-rock roots and ‘60s influences, but much more too. And those were qualities you prided yourself upon really, weren’t they?

“Well, yeah, and now Oscar and I are doing this acoustic tour, that is essentially closer to how the songs were written. Much closer, because I wrote all the songs on an acoustic guitar with a little Sony tape player and a notepad. That’s how they were written, and then the others turned it into Ocean Colour Scene.”

All these years on, the fact that you weren’t fly-by-night successes is perhaps reflected in the amount of Ocean Colour Scene records still on my CD shelves, between Oasis, Orange Juice, OMD, The Orchids, and Otis Redding. In fact, there’s a wealth of albums you made that you can be rather proud of.

“Thank you. I think so, yeah.”

And behind the occasional swagger and layers of style, there were those great songs, the words and melodies finding their way into heads and hearts, ones we can now experience in that stripped-back format.

“Yeah, I hope so. A good example is ‘The Circle’, which we play as a ballad. That’s probably one of my favourite songs we do live. And it’s one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written.”

I wouldn’t disagree with that. Such a great song. As for the afore-mentioned Paul Weller, he latched on to you pretty early. Do you remember the first time you heard he was interested in your band?

“Yeah, Steve had always been a big, big fan. And it’s incredible, the path Steve’s life has taken, because they’re now best friends. He absolutely idolised Paul, and we ended up recording that first album initially at Solid Bond, which was Paul’s studio.”

That was near Marble Arch in London, long before Paul headed back to his Surrey roots to set up Black Barn.

“That’s how we ended up working with Brendan (Lynch) on the second album, because we got to know Brendan and Max (Beesley) through Paul, who were doing an album, Roads to Freedom, with Carleen Anderson’s band, Young Disciples.

“Brendan was doing that album whilst we were doing the album with Jimmy Miller. And by ‘93, Steve was in Paul’s band, and he’s been there ever since. Also, I went on the tours, around Britain and Europe as the support man. So I played the Albert Hall on my own, with songs like ‘The Day we Caught the Train’, before the band played that venue. That that really was a great apprenticeship … thanks to Paul.”

Having played those larger venues and big outdoor shows, it must offer a fresh buzz to be able to play those more intimate venues like those you have coming up on this tour with Oscar.

“Yeah, we like that, me and Os. Also, we can sit down! Haha! We are both 56, for Christ’s sake!”

And only just. Oscar turns 57 this weekend (April 15th), with Simon following suit within six weeks (May 25th). Do you tend to tell a few stories each night?

“Yeah, I like doing that.”

How about Oscar – does he pipe in, put you right on a few things?

“He normally tells me to shut up and get on with the act!”

I was talking last week to Neil Sheasby from Stone Foundation, and Paul Weller not only invites his band back time and again to record their LPs at Black Barn, but it seems he can’t help chipping in with vocals and instrumentation here and there.

“He’s a workaholic, isn’t he!”

True. Have you got a similar work ethic?

“Well … not really. Haha! I haven’t written for quite a while, but I’ve got a load of lyrics I’ve been working on. They’re kind of poems, but they need to be turned into songs. So maybe I’ll try and do that. Mind you, this year we’re kind of busy.”

I’m guessing as a band you’ve stayed pretty close, at least as friends, if not geographically … and you and Oscar aren’t so far from each other.

“Yeah, Oscar lives in Birmingham, while I live near Stratford-upon-Avon. Actually, Oscar’s meant to be over here now, because we’re doing something for Record Store Day, then we’re rehearsing upstairs in my little studio room.”

That Record Store Day engagement on April 23rd ties in with the re-release of hit album, Live on the Riverboat, from 20 years ago, recorded on the Renfrew ferry, which operates on the Clyde. Hence their visit to Strip Joint Records in Glasgow to mark the occasion. As for future Scenies dates (these days with Raymond Meade on bass), is it a case of meticulous checking of diaries, not least with Steve’s itinerary with Paul?

“Well, yeah, Steve’s with Paul at the moment. Then Ocean Colour Scene have some festivals over the summer. As have Oscar and I. But at the moment we’re concentrating on this tour, which is 25 dates … and we haven’t done that for years.”

Including a few on my adopted patch. And when you’re writing songs and lyrics, do you tend to think some are for the band and some for other projects?

“I never think that, because Ocean Colour Scene have a range which includes all of that. I think probably my favourite album is the B-sides album. And that’s sort of more akin to what Oscar and I are doing really.”

Incidentally, having written this interview up now, a number of OCS CDs still surround me, and I’ve moved that 1997 compilation, B-Sides, Seasides & Freerides (their other top-10 LP, reaching No.4) a little closer, with a view to revisiting it soon as I have a chance.

Do you think there might be a new album coming in the next year or so?

“There might.”

You’re not ruling it out.

“No, I’ll just see if I can drag my way from the Peroni!”

And how is Cooper?

“He’s great.”

Keeping you fit?

“Well, I wish. I can’t walk that well actually. I’ve got a bad hip. That’s why I’ve had to drop the Mick Jagger moves a little bit recently. He hasn’t though, and he’s 78 … bastard! I hate him!”

Maybe he’s not having to walk a dog every day.

“He’s probably got someone to do that. But he does run about 10 miles a day, doesn’t he? He used to run around Richmond Park. I never saw him. I used to live in Ham. I’d run into Pete Townshend practically every day, and we sort of became pals. He’s just sold the house actually. He lives almost opposite where Mick lives. And Jerry Hall, who took over the main house in the split. I never bumped into Mick though, but I’d love to.”

There is another Stones link, the Scenies supporting them in Stuttgart, Germany, at one point, Simon saying in another interview they were thrilled about that, but never met them, adding, ‘There were two stadiums in the city and a football match at one of them. So our dressing rooms were two miles away and somehow, in all the logistics, we never got to shake Mick’s hand.’

On the Pete Townshend front though, there must have been a fair few moments like that when you thought, ‘How’s this lad from Birmingham got here?’.

“Oh, I know. I still think it’s absolutely absurd. Mind you, when I was a journalist, I interviewed Muhammad Ali. So beat that one! Haha! That was for the Birmingham Post & Mail. I was doing   work experience there and ended up as a journalist on the Post and Mail for four years, I’d have joined the paper in … it must have been September ‘83.”

Glad you didn’t carry on with that?

“Yeah, I knew within a fortnight I didn’t like being shouted at by small sub-editors. They were always small, and they were always far better than me at their job! I thought, ‘I’m out of my depth here. I don’t like this’. I wanted to be a football commentator. That’s why I became a journalist. I wanted to be John Motson … and within a fortnight I wanted to be John Lennon.”

Well, he clearly found his path soon enough, and getting on for 33 years later all four members of the band are still going somewhere, just like the narrator of ‘The Circle’.

To head back to this website’s May 2018 feature/interview with Simon Fowler, head here.

An Evening with Simon and Oscar of Ocean Colour Scene dates: April 29th – Dundee, Fat Sam’s; 30th – Aberdeen, Lemon Tree. May 1stGlasgow, Oran Mor; 2nd – Edinburgh, Liquid Rooms; 5th – Stockton-on-Tees, ARC; 6th – Newark, The Palace; 7th – Stamford, Corn Exchange; 8th – Sheffield, City Hall; 10th – Whitley Bay, Playhouse; 11th – Buxton, Opera House; 12th – Corby, The Core; 13th – Bridlington, Spa; 15th – Southend, Palace Theatre; 16th – Bury St Edmunds, The Apex; 17th – London, Islington Union Chapel; 19th – Ilkley, Kings Hall; 20th – Lytham-St-Annes, Lowther Pavilion; 21st – Manchester, RNCM; 22nd – Burnley, Mechanics; 24th – Bristol, St George’s; 26th – Bexhill, De La Warr Pavilion; 27th – Harpenden, Public Halls; 28th – Shrewsbury, Theatre Severn; 29th – Birmingham, Town Hall. June 2ndCardiff, The Globe. Tickets are available from venue box offices and Ticketmaster. You can also find out more via www.oceancolourscene.com and keep in touch with the band’s happenings via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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